Myth, Mrs, Lady

By David Flin


Mrs Pankhurst and her friends passed out pamphlets, sometimes chained themselves to railings, Emily Davison disrupted the Derby in 1913, and the Suffragette movement achieved success by working hard during the First World War, and in 1918, they achieved success, with Votes for Women being granted.

That was the history of the Suffragette Movement, right?

Well, no. History has been kind to the Movement. Their cause is one that is so obviously a good one on the right side of history that some of the elements that made up the movement have been mythologised, and what everyone knows about the history has shifted slightly to fit in with the accepted narrative. It’s a classic case of what everyone knows isn’t the whole truth, by any means.

Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, and this is described on the UK Parliament’s website as “the Start of the Suffragette Movement.”

And yet that was barely the start of things. Not even close. The first mass petition for women suffrage was in 1866, signed by women from all walks of life. Several groups sprang up, mainly small and localised. Of course, at this time, calls for women to have the vote on the same terms as men was a bit meaningless, as most men didn’t have the vote. Even after the 1884 Representation of the People Act, the poorest 40% of men still didn’t have the right to vote.


These groups had limited impact, and started to come together. In 1897, 17 suffrage societies combined to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett. The NUWSS became the leading suffragist organisation, with over 200 branches and over 21,500 members by 1910. By contrast, the WSPU in 1910 had less than half that number of members, and was in the process of expelling working-class women from its ranks. Christabel Pankhurst said: “A working woman was of no value. Working women are the weakest portion of the sex … Their lives are too hard, and their education to meagre to equip them for the fight.”


This led into an internal struggle between various suffrage factions. Essentially, one group wanted men and women to have the vote on equal terms, while others wanted full adult suffrage.


Deeds, not words The slogan of the WSPU was: “Deeds, not words.” It had grown tired of making its case, and getting nowhere, and decided to take direct action. Everyone knows that this included things like chaining themselves to railings, damaging works of art like the Rokeby Venus, breaking windows, and – most famously – Emily Davison disrupting Derby Day by running in front of a horse and being trampled.

Everyone is right, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Churches and cathedrals were bombed, including explosions at Westminster Abbey, Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, and Christ Church Cathedral in Ireland, all in the summer of 1914. There were explosions in Trafalgar Square in April 1914, at the house of David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1913, and at the Glasgow Botanical Gardens in the same year. Kew Gardens received attention as well.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress on Flickr

There was a campaign of burning abandoned buildings. This was all very well, but there were problems with ensuring that the buildings were actually empty. In Shoreditch, a house was burned. Unfortunately, it wasn’t empty, and two children were killed in the fire. This brought the East London Federation of the Suffragettes into disagreement with the WSPU. One branch of thought expressed by leaders of the WSPU was that it was a necessary sacrifice.

We read about the slashing of a portrait in the National Gallery. We don’t read so much about the bomb planted there.

Votes for Women The WSPU had the slogan Votes for Women, which was daubed in many places. Many groups fought for Votes for Women, and working men as well.

It’s quite astonishing really. WSPU publications included an outline of its aims:

“The Women’s Social and Political Union are NOT asking for a vote for every Woman, but simply that sex shall cease to be a disqualification for the franchise.”

It could hardly be plainer. The WSPU did not want to extend the franchise to working-class women, just to women of their own social class.

This was the essential difference between Suffragists and Suffragettes. Suffragists wanted the vote extended to all adults, male and female, regardless of class, and worked to extend the franchise through incremental steps.

Suffragettes, by contrast, wanted rapid change brought about by direct action, and for the franchise to exclude the working-class, both male and female.

Changes to the law had come about prior to the formation of the WSPU in 1903.

In 1869, some women were granted the vote in some local elections under the Municipal Franchise Act.

In 1870, women became eligible to vote for and serve on the newly-formed School Boards.

In 1875, they could become Poor Law Guardians.

County Councils were established in 1888, and women could vote in these. In 1892, it was ruled that women could serve on County Councils.

Progress was slow and intermittent, but the franchise was being extended.

Another common myth is that Parliament was against extending the franchise to women. It wasn’t. In 1897, MPs passed, with a majority of 71 votes, a motion to support women’s enfranchisement. There was then a delay, while MPs digested the implications of extending the franchise. There seemed to be two main options; granting women the franchise on the basis of equality with men, which would increase the number of Conservative-leaning voters, or extending the franchise generally, which would increase the number of Liberal-leaning voters.

The Conservative Government was inclined, amazingly enough, to the former, which was conveniently what the WSPU wanted. However, progress was too slow for them, and they started direct action to force the issue. Inevitably, this resulted in resistance to change by the Government, and opinion became more divided.

A look at the illustrations on the posters and pamphlets produced by the WSPU is instructive. The overwhelming majority are of well-dressed, middle-class and upper-class women. Working women are entirely absent from the literature.

Victory? When the First World War started, and most of the suffrage organisations promptly threw their weight into supporting the war effort. As a result of this, on 28th March, 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, or graduates of British universities. It also extended the franchise to all adult men over the age of 21. Although this added 8.5 million women to the electoral register, it was less than half of the adult women in the UK. The measures were passed into law in February 1918 under the Representation of the People Act.

Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst dissolved the WSPU, and turned their attentions elsewhere, first to prosecute the war with Germany to a successful and final conclusion, and then, when the war was over, to take steps to contain and eliminate “the Scourge of Bolshevism in Russia.”

The large suffrage movements ceased their activities once the Act was passed. It was left to smaller organisations, mostly working-class organisations such as the East London Federation of Suffragettes, many affiliated with the Labour Party, to continue the struggle to get all adult women the vote.

They finally found victory in 1928, when the Equal Franchise Act awarded women the vote on equal terms to men, at age 21.

What If? There are any number of Alternate History possibilities. What if the WSPU had regarded the First World War as an opportunity to press home demands against a desperate Government, and continued its campaign of deeds, with bombings and attacks and disruptions?

What if the WSPU had pressed for extending the franchise to all women, rather than accepting property restrictions? What if the Labour Party, to which the WSPU was originally affiliated, had achieved greater initial success in achieving the objectives of extending the franchise to all adults? What if someone who mattered was injured or killed during an incident of direct action? Fatalities occurred, but were working class people, and not considered important by anyone of influence. However, if David Lloyd George had been in his house when the arson attempt took place, the movement would have been seen to have attempted to assassinate the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

And, perhaps most interestingly, given that the movement had some connections with the Labour Party, which in turn had a number of members, such as Ramsay MacDonald, who opposed British involvement in the First World War, what if the Suffragette movement had thrown its weight behind opposition to the war, rather than full-hearted support of it.

Discuss this article here

© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

  • facebook-square
  • Twitter Square